Archives for the month of: February, 2010

Next week I will be talking to a group of civic participation experts about social media and how it may (or may not be) affecting democracy, dialog, and deliberation. I began to put my thoughts together in a series of bullet points and it rapidly became an outline for a longer paper. I thought I would publish it here and point my colleagues to it, in order to jump start our conversation.

Social Media And Emerging Alternatives To Top-Down Professionalization In Public Life

What are we talking about?

The Internet has simply become infrastructure (email, static web pages). Social media is emergent now, but it is also on the way to becoming ubiquitous. Facebook, for example, has 350 million users worldwide, half of which sign in every day. More than 60 million accounts are in the U.S.

Social media is also known as Web 2.0, a term which is almost obsolete. What it means is an approach to the Web in which individual contributions are paramount.

Social media’s inherent difference — the core difference between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0 — is that the contributions, comments and other responses of users are seen as intrinsically important. This is a shift in thinking from masses accessing content to masses creating content online.

The key, for civic purposes is: Social media allows many-to-many communication unmediated by central institutions or organizations.

A Study Of Emergence

Asking what effect the Internet will have on public life is similar to the question of how the telephone changed American life. This is an apt comparison for a number of reasons. At its most basic level, the Internet is a new mechanism for communications.

The definitive social study of the telephone is Claude S. Fischer’s America Calling: A Social History Of The Telephone To 1940. This book, published in 1992, studied the spread of the telephone throughout California through primary source material as well as through interviews with people who were alive in the 1910-1940 timeframe.

Telephone by Flickr user Esparta

Telephone by Flickr user Esparta

The parallels to social media are uncanny and persistent. For example, the worries that the establishment had about this new technology and its possible deleterious effects were very similar to what we hear today. In 1926 the Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee discussed the topic “Do modern inventions help or mar character and health?” Among the specific questions the proposed by the committee were “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” [and] “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”

Another common response as the telephone emerged into ubiquity was derision at the triviality of the uses made of the telephone. “We are at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the telephone . . . and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions, and the more leisure they have the more active do they become in destroying ours,” wrote one professor.

Also of interest is how the use of the telephone evolved from its intended purposes. In 1910, Bell was advertising the telephone as an efficiency tool, suitable for business and, to a lesser extent, for making the running of a household easier (for example, ordering groceries became easier).  Just thirteen years later, people’s actual use of the telephone had evolved to the point where sociability was the main point. A 1923 Southwestern Bell training manual for sales staff said: “[T]he telephone . . . almost brings [people] face to face. It is the next best thing to personal contact. So the fundamental purpose of the current advertising is to sell the company’s subscribers their voices at their true worth – to help them realize that ‘Your Voice is You,’ . . . to make subscribers think of the telephone whenever they think of distant friends or relatives.”

From Emergence To Ubiquity

The best examination of using new technologies to organize — that is, of individuals self-organizing outside of the constraints and plans of institutions — is Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing without Organizations (2008). Shirky points out — as does Fischer — that change happens when new technology becomes ubiquitous. Text messaging has driven much more change than has Facebook. The telephone drove change when it became normal to call people and converse for sociable purposes.

The parallel with telephone adoption, and the point about ubiquity, are important ones to keep in mind because they can help frame conversation about engagement and social media, and also stave off alarmism.

Conversations about social media often devolve into conversations about techniques: How can we use our Facebook page to get more donations? That’s an uninteresting way to approach the conversation. It is little different than saying, how can we best use the phone to solicit donations?

Of greater interest are the questions like these:

  • What is going on that we can point to as alternative ways of civic organizing?
  • What are the implications for democracy?
  • Can we name what is needed that evolves away from organization-first thinking?

What is going on?

What are alternative ways of civic organizing? The best way to describe what is going on is to say that people are getting used to new mechanisms for engaging with one another.

In looking at what is happening, we should look at (sometimes spontaneous) efforts that unfold over time, and that involve many people interacting with many.

By Flickr user Beverly & Pack

By Flickr user Beverly & Pack

People point, for instance, to the “green revolution” in Iran — people around the world spontaneously developed ways for Iranian people to get information past government censors about what was going on. People outside of Iran began collating and collecting the information. Institutional news sources began using this information in their reporting. The piece in Iran that is interesting is the way spontaneous individual actions (creating repeater sites) was picked up by institutional entities (news organizations). The key driver of the Iran effect was text messaging (a ubiquitous technology).

Another example, this one from Shirky’s book. A 2002 Boston Globe story on Father John Geoghan revealed he had a history of fondling or raping boys and had been moved from parish to parish. In response to this, a small group of laity met in a church basement in January that year. The 30 gathered church citizens decided they ought to organize and so “Voice Of The Faithful” was born. Within six months they were 25,000 strong and international. Their pressure was key in the decision of Cardinal Bernard Law to resign near the end of that year.

This is in stark contrast to a similar set of circumstances ten years earlier, when the story of Rev. James R. Porter came to light, also in the Boston Globe. Similar laity outrage, in that case, simply “dissipated,” according to Shirky.

The difference between 2002 and 1992 was the advent of ubiquitous means of sharing news. “In 1992, the Globe wasn’t global, and the Porter story stayed in Boston,” writes Shirky. “In 2002 the Globe didn’t need to spread the Geoghan story to the world’s Catholics; the world’s Catholics were capable of doing that themselves.”

The key elements here were: News on the Web, email, and blogs repeating and republishing. These ubiquitous technologies had coalesced into an ecosystem.

What are the implications for democracy?

This is a harder question to answer than “what is happening” because it is inherently speculative. The answer is we do not know what use citizens will make of brand-new tools as they become ubiquitous. But one good guess is that people will use new technologies to do the same things they already do in civic life: kvetch, discover problems, name them, and consider how to solve them.

To the now-entrenched ecosystem described above, social media has now been added in, primarily in the form of user forums such as Craigslist and through Facebook. Civic organizing outside of institutions now takes place in these areas, as a dynamic ecosystem: blog posts and comments, forums, email lists, and Facebook. The linchpin of neighborhood organizing is increasingly the email list. Most computer literate citizens are a part of some community list (for parents, it is often a school list).

These lists — because of their ubiquity — are areas where emerging civic issues crop up, and get named and framed (to use terms from deliberative theory) before crossing into more institutional regimes (for instance, being brought up in community meetings).

Social media is also acting as a gateway for new people to enter — or feel a sense of efficacy in — public life.

Here is a very small example. I founded a community blog, Rockville Central, which I run with a partner, Cindy Cotte Griffiths. It has grown to become the second most-read local blog in Maryland. This has brought new readers. As this has happened, a number of people who did not see themselves as civically active before, now expressly point to online activity as having opened the door for them to be involved in public life. They now contribute and pitch in on community meetings, some have become community activists and speak up at city council meetings. More importantly, many have become “connectors” in the community-leadership sense of the word.

To sum up: New means of communication have become ubiquitous and are already being integrated into the already-existing community ecosystem dynamics.

Can we name what is needed that evolves away from organization-first thinking?

My colleague John Creighton and I have been doing work on the difference between institution-centric and citizen-centric public life. There is a confluence of factors that make for a coming revolution in many of the public institutions. Citizens are taking matters into their own hands — in part because they can, and in part because that is their expectation. Both of these are as a direct result of ubiquitous new technologies.

These new demands are driving radical change. For instance, Florida now requires all school districts to have an online education plan.

A citizen-centric organization will understand and work with the ubiquity of these new channels and the desire for people to use them.

From Adelaide, Australia, a story made the rounds a few months ago and had people wringing their hands. Two girls trapped in a storm drain chose to update their Facebook statuses with pleas for help rather than dial the local equivalent of 911.

This had local officials worried, according to a government spokesperson: “If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000 [the local equivalent of 911], so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway.”

This is an institution-centric view of what happened: The girls did not use bureaucratic systems properly. But they actually were communicating in as effective a way as they knew. It is the problem of the institution that it has not caught up to the way people increasingly communicate: through social media where one comment can go out to many people at once.

It’s not just teenagers, either. In Atlanta in May 2009, a city councilman was worried that his cell phone battery would go dead while he waited on hold for 911. So, he sent a message to Twitter: “Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson St. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet.”

One thing that we can watch for in terms of less organization-first thinking is for these institutions to acknowledge that social media is a part of the ecosystem people use to communicate, and not a “channel” to be “managed.”

Consider a comment that I heard at a recent working session on social media and community benefit organizations, which was organized by the National Conference on Citizenship, the Case Foundation, and PACE. At this working session, Scott Heiferman, founder of, complained: “You know how all these organizations have links to their Twitter and Facebook accounts? Most of them say ‘connect with us.’ But why would I want to do that, and why do you want people to ‘connect’ with you? That still sees your organization as the mothership. Get people to connect to each other somehow.”

That’s the point of the Atlanta councilman’s “Pls. Retweet” note. His plea got picked up and quickly made its way to the right person — not because he sent it to through the right channel, but because a connection of his did. This is the power of the many-to-many facet of social media, and the largest change for public life. The many-to-many is becoming ubiquitous.

This is the crux of the difficulty for organizations. The whole notion of an institution wanting to “connect” with its public is problematic. Organizations that move themselves away from being the focal point will contribute the most to public life.

But, for an institution, to take itself out of the equation and getting people connecting with one another may be the toughest discipline of all.

When they discover Myers-Briggs personality types, many people are transfixed by the dichotomy between “extraverts” and “introverts.” This may be because this is the easiest and most in-you-face concept.

That was my own experience, when I first learned that I am an ENTP personality type.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has four factors, each of which has two possible values. Knowing these values can allow us to understand what our biases and inclinations are when it comes to our personaties, as well as those of others. This is useful in the workplace (and, in fact, in any situation where it’s all about how people get along: families, civic efforts, etc.).

Equal Opportunity Employment by Flickr user pasukaru76

"Equal Opportunity Employment" by Flickr user pasukaru76

It’s especially useful to know (or be able to identify through observation) others’ types, because that can help you get along with them better and — as a leader — can help you create balanced teams that are the most effective. It helps to have lots of different types around.

Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Extravert / Introvert — Where you get your energy
  • INtuitive / Sensing — How you take in information about your world
  • Feeling / Thinking — How you like to make decisions
  • Judging / Perceiving — How you organize your world

One’s Myers-Briggs type is not destiny. It is more a description of what your “default” or preferred way of handling things is.

Each of the factors is important in its own right. But, in the workplace, I have found the last letter-pair in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to be particularly  important. This is P vs. J — “Perceiving” vs. “Judging.”

Peceivers And Judgers

Many people misunderstand this factor, because of the pejorative sense the word “judging” conveys — they hear “judgmental,” which people see as negative. But it has nothing to do with that. This factor describes how a person organizes their world.

A P is always scanning for new information and prefers to defer making decisions until absolutely necessary. A J, on the other hand, is always on the lookout for decisions already made, and prefers to make a decision and move on whenever possible. For a P, decisions are contingent and new ideas can reopen decisions that had already been made. To a J, decisions are only reopened in extreme circumstances.

In the workplace, J‘s tend to get on P‘s nerves, who see them as overly uptight. Meanwhile, P‘s tend to absolutely infuriate J‘s, whe often regard them as unstable and mercurial.

Seth Godin’s recent article on hunters and farmers can be seen as a description of P‘s (hunters) and J‘s (farmers).

Tips For P Leaders

Lots of nonprofit leaders, in my experience, are P‘s. I’m one myself. Over the years I have learned a few pointers in getting along and thriving.

Advice for leaders who are P‘s:

  1. Remember what others are hearing. Remember the J‘s around you are looking for and actively cataloging commitments made. So, when you muse about things, talk through alternatives, and suggest you might be rethinking this or that initiative — others may be hearing definite plans. This can cause anxiety and misunderstandings.
  2. Find a safe sounding board. As a P, you need to find someone to bounce ideas off of. It might be safest to look for someone outside your organization to talk to.
  3. Play to people’s strengths. J‘s are incredibly good at identifying the commitments people make — who promised to do what by when. They are the best people to have taking notes at a staff meeting, they are in their element driving complex projects with intricate deadlines, and in ensuring that policies are adhered to. Do you need solid and consistent performance, day-in, day-out? Get a J on the job.
  4. Be clear when you’re just talking. Make sure you let people know that sometimes you are raising ideas without any decisions attached — and that you will definitively say when you do make a decision. It is important for others around you (especially J‘s) to be able to know what is stable and what is fluid.
  5. Careful you don’t get distracted! If you work with many other P‘s, it’s easy to get sidetracked. P‘s are distracted by shiny objects and, get a few of them together in one room, it’ll be one new initiative after another! That’s great, but . . . older initiatives may tend to fall by the wayside. As a leader, make sure there are enough J‘s around to keep things on track.

That last point, about getting sidetracked, cannot be overemphasized.

The Distracted Organization

In my experience and observation, it is very easy for an entire organization to take on P characteristics if there are too many P‘s in senior leadership without any J balance. And, for whatever the reason (we can speculate all we want) it seems like there are a lot of P people throughout the nonprofit sector.

Furthermore, people often (not always) tend to gravitate to folks like them. So, a leader can end up surrounding themselves with people they like, but who do not necessarily complement or balance their skill sets.

So, many organizations can themselves become mercurial, easily distracted by shiny objects and new ideas. I can remember returning from a meeting with one organization. The meeting lasted three hours and we never even touched the agenda. “That is a totally P organization,” I told my colleagues. (I even wrote a memo about it for others, for their use in working with the organization.)

Knowing this, knowing the potential for distractedness (the downside of the P factor), it is important to work against that and actively seek out people who are different from you. This is of course true in an inclusionary sense (gender, ethnicity, orientation, background, and so forth) but it is also true in a personality type sense.

What Are P‘s Good For?

Are P‘s a terrible thing? Distracted, mercurial, flighty . . . they sound like a nightmare in the workplace!

Speaking as a P, certainly not. P‘s can drive a lot of energy, creativity, and out-of-the-box breakthroughs (these are not solely the province of P‘s, don’t get me wrong).

If you need a stalled project accelerated, put a P on the job. If you have a high-energy and time-limited task (like prepping for an important meeting or event), a P can really shine. Because of their omnivorous approach to things, a P can be great in a generalist troubleshooter position and (balanced with a good J as a partner) can be a great manager.

In a future post, I may outline my thoughts about some of the other Myers-Briggs factors and how they relate to leadership. Please note, though, that this is just based on my experience and I am not an expert on personality types. I’ve just thought a lot about them and try to use them in my day-to-day life.

What’s your type? How has that impacted how you get your work done?

Yesterday Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in response to a question at a congressional hearing, suggested that Toyota owners ought to avoid driving their cars.

MotorShow 2007: Toyota Rav4 by Flickr user Gaspa

MotorShow 2007: Toyota Rav4 by Flickr user Gaspa

Specifically, he said: “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, take it to the Toyota dealer because they believe they have the fix for it.”

The result was widespread pandemonium and criticism across the Internet. In a hyper-connected age, the episode raises some good points.

(Note that I am not talking about the new issue regarding the Prius braking system; this particular episode revolved around the accelerator issues for other vehicles.)

Certainly, it’s reasonable advice to tell someone to quit driving their car, too, but did the head of transportation for the nation have to say that? Toyota has a valid argument that this unfairly kicks them while they are already down. Why not, they might respond, just tell folks to go to the dealer, and omit the whole get-it-off-the-road part? In fact, they responded Toyota responded with a straightforward “they are too safe.”

And, LaHood quickly retracted his statement and said it was an “obvious misstatement.” But I think he may be overreacting to his initial overreaction. LaHood faced an honest dilemma: what to say? There is no perfect answer. My colleague Rush Kidder would point out that he faced a right-vs.right ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, LaHood needs to take a measured stance, not provoke pandemonium, and weigh his words carefully. But, on the other hand, as the chief transportation safety officer of the country, LaHood has an equally strong obligation to place safety first and if that means a company is upset then so be it.

The fact that one clause in one sentence bounced around the Internet so quickly adds intensity to the fundamental dilemma that any leader faces when faced with the need to advise citizens on what to do in difficult times.

The Dilemma Of Evaluation

On a smaller scale, yet no less intense sometimes, foundation and nonprofit leaders face similar dilemmas. We live and work in a world where evaluation and impact measurements are the rage. Grant seekers are under pressure to show potential funders that their programs actually do what is hoped and that they have a decent bang for the buck.

Funders, at the same time, are under pressure from their boards and from economic forces to ensure that they are spending their money wisely.

What this means is that the independent sector has become evaluation-happy. And, this places philanthropic leaders at a crossroads. They are learning a great deal about what works — and what does not work. The question is: What to do with negative reports?

On the one hand, it’s important to share information about effectiveness so that people don’t waste their time and money. And, certainly in the case of absolute failures that’s a no-brainer. But most evaluations are more nuanced and it is not entirely clear if an initiative absolutely failed or whether it just didn’t work as well as it could have.

Given that, and on the other hand, what right does a foundation leader have to spread around such ambiguous information, when such evaluations might dissuade other funders from donating and so hurt the organization in question? So there is a strong moral argument behind not sharing evaluation information. But this leaves possibly ineffective initiatives potentially running indefinitely. Because new funders need to start at square one with their own studies.

Resistance to evaluation is as natural an urge as any — who wants to examine their own possible failures? But there is also the broader question about what use is made of evaluation data. There is no simple answer to this, and I am not about to offer one here.

I will suggest that one thing that is needed is for individual leaders to be more willing to face their own fears. It is not a calamity if a charitable effort is not very effective.

Once, some time ago, I was asked to perform a self-evaluation on a fairly large initiative. The results of the study would, in part, determine if our grant would be renewed. It turned out that the evidence suggested our hard work was tilting against too strong a headwind. It’s effectiveness was questionable, especially on the expansive level we were considering.

My report was met with consternation from my organization as well as from our funder. It threw a monkey wrench into things. We recalibrated and ended up doing something different (and arguably more effective, though that too had ambiguous results). Not the end of the world. But — in the moment — all of us involved had a great deal of fear. Our reputations, our livelihoods, our organizations were at stake.

Still, expressing honesty takes a culture that supports it. While easily said, this can be a hard thing in practice.

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Keeping Track Of The Other Unemployed

Yesterday, the government released data by metropolitan region on unemployment. That got me thinking about one of my pet peeves with unemployment data.

That number that gets reported? It dramatically understates the problem.

The official unemployment rate is the number of people actively looking for work. That number does not include so-called “discouraged workers” (people who could work but who have given up), people who are working part time because that’s all they can find, and more. In fact, here is the official list of all the unemployed and underemployed that the official figure does not take into account:

Marginally attached workers are persons who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past. Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not currently looking for a job. Persons employed part time for economic reasons are those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.

I have long known this but have not looked closely at the actual numbers, simply filed it away as a curiosity. But today I was curious: How has the American underutilized workforce been doing over the past year? I took a look at the data from November 2008 through December 2009.

Here is the official unemployment rate, month by month, for the past year or so, compared what I think of as the actual unemployment rate (which includes all those folks described above):


(Click for full size)

In November 2008, the official unemployment rate was 6.9%, and the actual rate was almost double that, 12.8%. In December 2009 it was 10% with an actual rate of 17.3%.

More than one in six Americans are out of work or are working part time because they can’t find anything else.

I understand that ral economists might quibble with my terminology, “actual” unemployment. I am not trying to win a Nobel Prize here, just look at the actual experience of real people as opposed to the press releases. I am also not pointing fingers at any administration. The recession started on George W. Bush’s watch, and continues under Barack Obama’s. It appears to be beyond both of them.

I was also curious about the “other unemployed” people. This is the group that tugs most at my heart strings. Has this gap been widening? It is hard to visualize from the bar charts so I made a new chart:

Click for full size

(Click for full size)

The number of “other unemployed” has been growing slowly but steadily over the last year. In November 2008 it was 5.9% and we ended 2009 at 7.3%.

In fact, while the government just focuses on the “official unemployment” rate, they make the whole set of numbers available. News organizations would provide a better snapshot of America by reporting the larger number. So, in my view, our nation’s unemployment rate stands at an incredible 17.3%.

Let’s not forget these folks.


(Note, the charts are by me, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those who are curious, the current recession began officially in December 2007, when the official unemployment rate was 5.0% and the actual rate was 8.8%.)

Some readers know how deeply I care and am energized by the modern Abolitionist movement across the world. There are more slaves now than there ever were at any time in human history. Human trafficking is tied with arms dealing for the second-most lucrative illicit business (after drugs). It is a $32 billion industry worldwide. More than two million children are sold into the sex trade every year.

Image from 25x4

Image from 25x4

What is slavery? Here is a succinct definition from Kevin Bales, who founded Free The Slaves:

Slavery is one person controlling another person using violence or the threat of violence, exploiting them economically and paying them nothing.

We often see terms like “slave like conditions”, or see the word slavery mixed in with paid child labor, sweatshops or similar forms of labor abuses. It is a mistake to confuse slavery with labor exploitation or other labor crimes. If the victim is paid or can get away it is not slavery.

In modern day slavery, human beings are literally bought and sold as property on an international market, for amounts ranging from $80 to $5000 or more. They have no control over their lives or their children’s lives: where they live, what work they do (usually dirty, degrading or dangerous), their sexuality, or their health. Being enslaved is extremely hazardous to human life and health – for example 25% of child slaves in India do not make it to adulthood, and another 22% are permanently disabled.

My friend Sarah Symons is the founder of The Emancipation Network, which works to get people out of slavery by helping them find ways to support themselves (and to help them in the transition from bondage to freedom). Sarah is on one of her periodic trips to India to help with some of her organization’s partner agencies and the schools they support.

She writes, in part:

Today we visited 10 of our school sponsored kids who have been placed in Ram Krishna Mission Boarding School. It was absolutely amazing! The kids looked so good, so happy and healthy and clean, that I almost did not recognize them. These girls, aged 6-13, were all born into the Kidderpore red light community of Calcutta. Their mothers were trafficked as young girls into brothels, and are still working the streets, kept captive now by a complete lack of other options, and by the extreme stigma hanging like a cloud over the whole district.

When the children lived at home, they shared a tiny room in the brothel with their mothers – it was a dangerous situation in the extreme, as there is always the risk that a client would tire of the mother and reach for her young daughter instead. Our partner agency Apne Aap, which runs a prevention program in Kidderpore, eventually took these 10 girls into the night shelter because they were at especially high risk or had already been exploited. The Emancipation Network began paying for their schooling three years ago and this past spring, they were enrolled in the Boarding School. . . .

The red light area is a scary place for a child to grow up. There was never enough food, clothing, supervision or attention and these kids had to become self-sufficient at a very early age. Seeing their mothers hurt and exploited on a nightly basis was the hardest part. Without intervention, girls growing up in red light areas almost always end up in forced prostitution themselves. . . .

Education is a surefire way to end the cycle of intergenerational slavery. Educating girls is the fastest way to transform a society from within.

(The full article, which is stirring, is available here.)

There are two ways to support The Emancipation Network. One is to directly sponsor children so more can be lifted out of slavery. The Emancipation Network pays for their schooling in boarding schools like the one Sarah describes in her blog post.

Another way is to purchase items at the Made By Survivors store. This shop contains products made by freed slaves and the proceeds directly support abolitionist efforts. There is some very cool stuff here.

Thank you to my friend Sarah and everyone else who works so hard to free people. Your actions both inspire and shame me. I should — we all should — do more.